Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from November 30 through December 2.
December 1, 2001 – The final flight by Trans World Airlines. When TWA ceased operations, it closed the book on one of the most well known airlines in the world. TWA’s 76-year history began 1925, when a fledgling company called Western Air Express was awarded a contract to fly mail from Salt Lake City, Utah to Los Angeles, California. About a month later, the company carried their first passengers in a Douglas M-1 biplane, though the flight was anything but luxurious. Modern travelers are quick to complain about only getting a bag of peanuts in coach, but those first two passengers spent the 8-hour flight seated on sacks of US Mail. In 1929, another startup company, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), began offering cross country trips that combined air and rail travel, carrying passengers from New York to California in 51 hours. Founder Clement Melville Keys had hired famed aviator Charles Lindbergh to help develop the transcontinental network, opening new airports across the country. Then, in 1930, TAT joined with Western Air Express at the urging of the US Postmaster, who wanted to expand air mail routes. The merger brought Lindbergh together with Jack Frye, another early pioneer of aviation who would lead T&WA through its meteoric rise from 1934-1947, and the new company bragged that it was “The Airline Run by Flyers.” But a promising future almost ended at birth when T&WA suffered the crash of a wooden-framed Fokker F.10 that took the life 8 passengers, including famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. T&WA needed new, modern aircraft, but they could not purchase the Boeing Model 247 because Boeing had an exclusive contract with United Airlines. So Frye turned to the Douglas Aircraft Company, who delivered the DC-1, DC-2, and eventually DC-3 airliners.
By 1934, T&WA was offering transcontinental flights—with three stops along the way for fuel—for $160, which is approximately $2,886 in 2016 dollars. In 1941, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes purchased a controlling stake in the company, overseeing the purchase of the larger and more modern Lockheed Constellation, which cut transcontinental flight times to about nine hours. During WWII, T&WA prospered under the leadership of Hughes and Frye, flying millions of miles for the US Army and providing supplies to far flung corners of the globe. Following the war, it became a truly global passenger airline, with Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s flying to Cairo, Bombay, Ceylon and Manila. But Hughes accused Frye of overextending the airline, and stock prices fell. Frye resigned in 1947, and thus began a revolving door of corporate leadership that would continue until TWA’s demise. In 1950, the company officially became known as Trans World Airlines in a nod to its global coverage, and Hughes finally brought the company into the jet age with the purchase of 63 Convair 880 airliners. But the delay in adopting the new airliners meant that TWA had lost its competitive edge, and Hughes was removed from the helm of the company. TWA did achieve a few significant firsts, becoming the first airline to hire an African-American flight attendant, and the first to show in-flight movies. In 1969 they carried more transatlantic passengers than any other carrier, and TWA was the third largest airline in the world by 1972. In the 1980s, TWA had become more of a business interest for investors than a pilot-centered aviation service, though TWA did make perhaps its greatest achievement by carrying more than 50 percent of all transatlantic passengers in 1988. By 1995, though, TWA had entered bankruptcy, and despite an attempt to reinvent itself as a smaller domestic airline, TWA was purchased by American Airlines in 2001. TWA’s final, ceremonial final Flight 220 from Kansas City to St. Louis was flown by a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 (N948TW) with TWA CEO William Compton at the controls. One of the world’s greatest global airlines had come to an end with a flight of just 240 miles. (DC-1 photo via San Diego Air & Space Museum)
December 2, 1948 – The first flight of the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor. For many years, the North American T-6/SNJ Texan was the primary aircraft trainer for the US military, as well as many other air forces around the world. Over 15,000 Texans were built over the years, and it was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Beechcraft rolled the dice following WWII and Walter Beech, who had founded the Beechcraft Aircraft Company in 1932, began development of what was dubbed the Beechcraft Model 45 as a replacement for the venerable T-6, even though the US military didn’t request one and there was no money in the defense budget to procure a new trainer. Based largely on the Beechcraft Bonanza, the Model 45 went through three design concepts, one of which employed the Bonanza’s signature V-tail. In the end, Beech dropped that in favor of a traditional tailplane to appeal to conservative military brass. The fuselage was narrowed, and a bubble canopy was installed to allow better visibility for the tandem cockpit. The aircraft was also significantly strengthened to hold up under the rigors of military training. When production began in 1953, Beechcraft had settled on the Continental E225 engine, a flat six-cylinder engine that offered 225 hp. Beechcraft began with two variants, the T-34A for the US Air Force and the T-34B for the US Navy, which was optimized for carrier operations, and both versions entered service in 1953. But with the jet engine becoming the primary powerplant for military aircraft, Beechcraft began another internal project to develop the T-34 into a jet trainer. This resulted in the Model 73 Jet Mentor, which was powered by a single Continental J69 turbojet. However, only one prototype was built, as the Navy passed on the Jet Mentor, and the Air Force chose the Cessna T-37 Tweet as its primary jet trainer. Nevertheless, the piston-powered T-34 remained in service, though production stopped for 15 years.
But the idea of a jet-powered Mentor never quite died, and production of the trainer was restarted in 1973 at the request of the US Navy to produce a turboprop powered variant. This aircraft, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine, entered service as the T-34C and remained in service until the 1990s, when it was replaced by another turboprop powered trainer, the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, a derivative of the Pilatus PC-9. In all, 2,300 Mentors were built throughout the two production runs, and many remain in private hands where they are frequently seen on the air show circuit. (US Navy photos)
December 2, 1937 – The flight of the Brewster F2A Buffalo. The Second World War saw the development of some of the greatest aircraft of the era, including powerful and nimble fighters that have become icons of the struggle and are still revered today for their performance and beauty. The Brewster Buffalo, however, does not hold a place in the pantheon of great fighters alongside the North American P-51 Mustang or the Supermarine Spitfire, and in the years since WWII the Buffalo has come to be seen as a failure, a symbol of obsolescent technology and poor design. The Buffalo traces its history back to 1935, when the US Navy requested a new fighter to replace the Grumman F2F biplane and considered three entrants into the competition: the Grumman XFF-1, a biplane fighter with retractable landing gear which would eventually be developed into the F4F Wildcat, the Buffalo, and a navalized version of the Seversky P-35, which was quickly eliminated for its lower speed.
By the design standards of the 1930s, the Buffalo was a truly modern aircraft. It boasted all-metal, flush-riveted, stressed aluminum construction, split flaps, and hydraulically operated retractable landing gear. It’s Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine provided a stout 950 hp, and the Buffalo had an impressive climb rate for its day, though its single-stage supercharger meant that high altitude performance suffered significantly. It also lacked self-sealing fuel tanks or armor plating to protect the pilot. Armament was provided by a single .50 caliber machine gun and a single .30 caliber machine gun, both mounted in the nose. The F2A-2 attempted to address some of the problems of the early model by providing increased armament and a more powerful engine, but the resulting weight gain nullified any performance improvements. The final version, the F2A-3, added improved range and provision for underwing stores, but the Navy and Marine Corps had already lost confidence in the Buffalo. By 1940 it was clear that the Buffalo was completely outclassed by more nimble Japanese aircraft such as the Mitsubishi A6M and Nakajima Ki-43, and remaining Buffalos were removed from combat following the Battle of Midway and transferred to Navy training squadrons in the US. British experience with the Buffalo in Malaya and Burma was little better, with aircraft prone to oil leaks that fouled windscreens and speeds well under their billing. Still, four Commonwealth pilots managed to become aces in the Buffalo early in the war. Despite the difficulties faced American and Commonwealth pilots, the Buffalo fared much better elsewhere, particularly in Finland, where the it was liked and flown with great effect. Finland’s greatest ace, Ilmari Juutilainen, scored 34 of his eventual 94.5 kills while flying a Buffalo against Russian fighters. Cooler weather, better maintenance practices and superior tactics allowed greater success for the plucky fighter, and it served with distinction during the Continuation War. Just over 500 Buffalos were built, and they ended their service in 1948. (US Air Force photo; US Navy photo)
November 30, 1986 – The first flight of the Fokker F100, a medium-size twin-engine airliner, and the largest jet airliner built by Fokker before the company went bankrupt in 1997. Developed to replace the smaller Fokker F28 Fellowship, the 100-seat F100 appeared at a time when there were few competitors for airliners of that size. Initial sales were strong, but competitors soon caught up and sales fell. In spite of the slump, it was ultimately financial mismanagement that doomed the storied aircraft builder, leading its parent company, Daimler Benz Aerospace, to shut down the company in 1996. Fokker built 283 F100s before the company folded, and 171 remain operational, mostly with smaller regional airlines. (Photo by Biggerben via Wikimedia Commons)
November 30, 1934 – The death of Hélène Boucher. Boucher was born on May 23, 1908, and purchased her first airplane, a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth, in 1931 and learned navigation and aerobatics. Boucher made a name for herself competing in air races, and, in 1933 and 1934, she set several world records, including one for altitude for a woman pilot and several speed records for flight over a distance of 1,000 km while flying a Caudron C.460 race plane. Boucher died while flying a Caudron C.430 Rafale when the aircraft crashed into a forest, and Boucher was posthumously made a knight of the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor. She was also the first woman given the honor of lying in state at the Hôtel national des Invalides. (Photo author unknown)
November 30, 1917 – The first flight of the Vickers Vimy, a twin-engine heavy bomber developed for the Royal Air Force late in WWI. By the end of the war, only three had been delivered to the RAF and did not take part in the conflict. However, the size and long range of the Vimy made it an excellent candidate for long-distance record setters, and a Vimy flown by John Alcock and Arthur Brown has the distinction of being the first aircraft to complete a non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. Others undertook notable long-distance flights from England to Australia and England to South Africa. With modifications to enlarge the fuselage, the Vimy was developed into the Vimy Commercial with accommodations for 10 passengers. (State Library of South Australia photo)
December 1, 1977 – The first flight of the Lockheed Have Blue, the code name for Lockheed’s proof of concept aircraft that demonstrated the capabilities of stealth aircraft design and developed manufacturing techniques and design elements that would be used on the production Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Unlike all previous aircraft that had been designed by aeronautical engineers, primary design of the Have Blue was performed by electrical engineers who helped created the faceted shape that would deflect radar signals and reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section. Two aircraft were built, and both were lost to crashes, though both pilots survived. Despite the mishaps, Have Blue was deemed a success, and would lead to the follow on program code named Senior Trend that developed the F-117. (US Air Force photo)
December 1, 1932 – The first flight of the Heinkel He 70 Blitz (lightning), a high-speed mail and passenger aircraft designed by Siegfried and Walter Günter of the Heinkel Flugzeugwerke to replace the slower Lockheed Vega and Lockheed Orion. Powered by a single BMW VI water-cooled V-12 engine, the He 70 achieved a total of 8 world speed records for its day, and Deutsche Luft Hansa operated the He 70 as a mail and passenger plane from 1934-1937 with accommodations for four passengers. During the Spanish Civil War, the He 70 was pressed into service as a fast reconnaissance bomber, but its lack of self-sealing fuel tanks and magnesium construction made it dangerously susceptible to fire. While the He 70 was not suited for duty in WWII, its elliptical wing and other design features would find their way into the Heinkel He 111 twin-engine medium bomber. (Photo via San Diego Air and Space Museum)
December 2, 1993 – The launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-61, the first mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST was launched in 1990, but faulty optics from an incorrectly ground mirror caused distorted images. In one of the most complex Shuttle missions to date, the 7 specially trained astronauts performed 5 extended extra-vehicular activity (EVA) periods to replace the High Speed Photometer with the COSTAR corrective optics package, install the new Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, replace 4 gyroscopes, and upgrade the computers. The HST was then boosted to a higher orbit. NASA considered the mission a complete success when Hubble began transmitting some of the sharpest images of the cosmos ever taken. Four additional servicing missions were flown, the last in 2009. (NASA photo)
December 2, 1976 – The first flight of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Though NASA originally considered using the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy to transport the Space Shuttle, they instead chose to modify a Boeing 747-100 airliner for the task, since the airliner employed a low wing and the C-5 would have to remain the property of the US Air Force. The first SCA (N905NA), was acquired from American Airlines in 1974, and a second (N911NA) was acquired from Japan Airlines in 1988 as a spare after the Challenger disaster. Modifications included the addition of mounting points for the Shuttle, a strengthened fuselage, improved avionics, more powerful engines, and the addition of vertical stabilizers for added control when the Shuttle was mounted. The SCA participated in glide tests of the original Shuttle Enterprise (OV-101), and ferried the Shuttles from landings in California back to the launch site in Florida. Both SCAs were retired in 2012 with the end of the Space Shuttle program. (NASA photo)
December 2, 1945 – The first flight of the Bristol Type 170 Freighter. The 170 was originally created as a measure to keep employees of the Bristol Aeroplane Company working while the huge, and ultimately unsuccessful, Bristol Brabazon was under development. Placement of the cockpit above the cargo hold helped accommodate as large a payload as possible, and clamshell doors at the front facilitated cargo loading and unloading. An all-passenger variant, called the Wayfarer, was developed, as well as a car-ferrying version that allowed passengers to bring their cars along on trips to the European Continent. Bristol built 214 Freighters between 1945-1958, and they served numerous civilian and military carriers around the world. (Photo author unknown)
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